From America


Two pieces of correspondence from Drainies came my way recently, both of which had a North American bent.

The first, from Graham, alerted me to the goings on in Los Angeles. Olden times readers of this blog will know that there’s been a long and dedicated effort to reclaim the concrete channel, so beloved of Terminators on Harley-Davidsons, and make it into a proper functioning river again.


I love that picture, above (a still from the video). Those men with hats are engineers working out how to “fix” that darned river and its annoying habit of having water in it. It worked so well that we copied the idea in Australia. Several times.

FOLAR has had a big win. (FOLAR stands for Friends of the Los Angeles River, so it should be FOTLAR: if you’re going to have the “o” of “of” then why not the “t” of “the”? But then NORWICH never did work because, as we all know, knickers starts with a “k”.) But the political winds have shifted and real advances have been made in the rehabilitation of the biggest beck in California. Hope!

On a completely different, and more irreverent, tack came this link from Richard. Maybe it was the heading that alerted him: Comic writer gets stuck in a hole and Twitter saves him. Hmm. Still, it’s entertaining. This guy got stuck in a skate bowl in the rain with his dog and an umbrella. How to get out? Thankfully, the Twitterverse responded.

Ryan in hole

Could that ever happen to me and Jambo, wondered Richard. Of course not! We’d simply climb on a log and bob down to the Carrington boardwalk. As the meerkats say, “Simples!”


Global peace


So you had a “weather event” while I was away. It was big enough to make it onto the BBC news, which is massive for something about Australia that doesn’t involve a person being eaten by native fauna, or a person (such as a cricket captain or prime minister) having a cry in public.

Over there it was reported as having happened in Sydney, because to British ears Sydney is Australia. It was also reported as being “like a cyclone” or “the equivalent to a category 2 cyclone”. Poms have no idea what the categories of cyclone are, and so “2” could be quite mild or could be apocalyptic; we took it from the vision of trees torn down and cars bobbing along the street that “2” was pretty bad. We could only imagine what “1”or “3” must be like.

However, by the time I got back to Oz the event was being called a “super storm”. Is that a thing? If so, does it have a category? Or is it a name invented by the insurance industry to stymie claims, in the same way that after the Pasher Bulka storm people discovered that they were insured for inundation but not flooding?

Newcastle has become dotted by stumps: in people’s yards, by the roadside, in the parks. One of the big figs in Richardson Park took a dive.


It was late evening on Monday before I got into the creek. I walked down as far as the litter boom by the TAFE and was startled to see a tree across the banking, from Islington Public School. It was too dark to take a picture, unfortunately, but on the way back I captured a Maitland train as it paused and chuffed and chuntered on the Styx bridge.


This morning I went back down there. It is a very big tree indeed and must have made a hell of a bang when it came down, though given the reports of the howling wind and of things being thrown around the place I doubt whether anyone heard. Which puts paid to one philosophical riddle.


The wrack in the branches shows how high the creek got to after the tree fell. It must have been impressive and I almost wish I’d been there to see it.


Actually, on second thoughts I’m glad I didn’t.

Unlike yesterday evening it was lovely and light this morning, and so as I emerged from beneath the rail bridge I saw a new roll-up that must have happened in recent weeks.


After all the carnage of the event, or cyclone, or super storm, or whatever it was, this was a rather comforting message. Everything will be all right.

Where is it?


Ralph Snowball was extraordinary. His photographs of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Newcastle are full of interesting historical details, but more than that they’re often beautiful in and of themselves. His thoughtfulness in capturing the mundane and the quotidian – from street hoardings to “ordinary” workers going about their regular business – brings the Newcastle of our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation instantly to life.

This shot is titled “Waratah Coal Coy’s Raspberry gully line bridge and New Lambton coal Coy’s railway bridge crossing a drain at Broadmeadow” (link to the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections here).


It’s not one of his prettiest, but it does show what I’m sure is the Styx in an earlier incarnation. Here’s where I think it is: by the Westpac rescue helicopter pad, opposite the trotting stadium.


The two features that make me think it’s there are the junction of Lambton Ker-rai Creek, at left, and the ridge line at the back. But against that is the quite obvious dogleg in the top picture, as opposed to the gun-barrel straight creek line in the bottom picture. It could have been realigned but, really, would you dig that entire drainage line out, by hand, then dig it again to make it straight? Most unlikely.

So where is it? Your thoughts, please.

Where it all began


I’m visiting family in England and, as always happens when I’m back here I find myself tramping the same highways and byways that I tramped as a kid.

When I’m in Newcastle I call the water channel that runs down the centre of the Styx Creek “the beck”. It’s a northern word of, I think, Norse origin. This, below, is the very first beck I ever played in, got wet in, made dams in: it is the proto-beck against which all other becks are measured. It has a name, Blea Beck, though I never knew that until I was well into my teens and I saw it marked on an Ordnance Survey map. To me it was just “the beck”.


I crossed the beck every day, then scrambled up this  path behind Harry Barker’s squawky, stinky chook sheds, on my way to the school at the top of the hill. God knows what sort of state I must have been in when I arrived.


If you look at the first picture of the beck you can see a dark patch that my iPhone hasn’t been able to focus on properly. Here’s that patch but close up. It’s where the beck’s been boxed in or channelised at some point in the distant past, and so you could say that this is my first ever drain.


One afternoon, in about 1971, me and a friend set off into the dark maw with a torch and wellies that were quickly swamped by the deepest parts of the beck. Sections of the roof were collapsed and it was very exciting (read stupidly dangerous). The first inklings of my desire to sneak around watery places, to go to places I shouldn’t!

The beck leads into the Duddon Estuary. The house where I grew up – where my dad still lives, where I’m sitting as I type this – overlooks the estuary. The low hill in the background is Black Combe and its profile is embedded in my DNA. Many, many hours were spent following Blea Beck down through dales (rows of fields marked out in furlongs) to this estuary, hours of playing in the brackish water where the beck met the tide.


This day, Black Combe had a covering of cloud. Which is a not uncommon event, I have to say.


But it’s gorgeous, whatever the weather.


It’s where it all began for me.

Upstream for a change


A friend was telling that the blog inspired him to take his dog for a walk in the creek. He set off from the football stadium and got as far as the gasworks but turned back as his dog wasn’t enjoying it much. (Yeah, right: it was the dog’s fault.)

I can see what he means, truth be told. I very rarely go upstream because that section of the creek is indeed pretty bleak. But this week I was alerted to the presence of an interesting mural buy Driver Dom, who told me that there was a neat painting on the toilet block on the oval behind McDonald’s.

Hey: s/he’s right!


It’s a very lovely representation, though the huge, mature trees are probably more wish fulfilment than reality.


Whatever, I like it. More please!


PS: A friend just sent me a link to the Wallis Album, held by the State Library of NSW. Beautiful, delicate drawings, including this one of Throsby Creek. The Styx must have looked pretty much the same back in the day. I wonder, if Wallis had been deported now, whether he’d be using aerosol cans instead of pencils and watercolours.


There once was an ugly duckling


The morning crowd was out in force the other day, down by the litter boom: two kinds of egret, two kinds of cormorant, a pelican, a pair of chestnut teal, a darter (first in a long while), various white-faced herons, and the domestic duck that’s taken up residence there (and is horribly cranky).

There are lots of black ducks, and several clutches of ducklings – one of them with ten littlies. That won’t last, not with the number of foxes that have been prowling the gasworks area lately.

Ducklings drive Jambo mad and he’s compelled to chase them. If they don’t think they’re going to make it to the deep water in time they go into survival mode – diving and paddling under water for a couple of metres before bobbing up, then disappearing again. It’s a very effective survival method when there are ten of them at it zipping off in all directions; at least, it’s very effective against a small-brained terrier.

But what a surprise yesterday morning. As I was heading back upstream I saw this huge great grey thing paddling towards me. A cygnet!

When was the last time you got up close and personal with a cygnet? They’re bigger than you think! This one hadn’t fledged and was still covered in down, it’s wings were no more than stumps. Jambo was completely nonplussed. As was I. Where on earth had it come from? There are no large bodies of fresh water upstream that I can think of, and I never see swans around the creek.

Answers please!

Do the right thing! For the kids!


I’m often startled at how unobservant I am. I hadn’t noticed this addition to the Styx Creek sign on the Griffiths Road bridge, though it doesn’t look new. It might have been there for years but, since I stopped walking my kids to Hamilton North School, I rarely walk that stretch of the road. But the creek was up and I thought I’d take Jambo somewhere different.

It annoyed me, that sign. I know that it’s been put there for a good cause by people who have thought about a particular issue, but it irked me. The problem they wish to address is the amount of pollution in the creek, in this case the high levels of fecal coliform from dog poo. I’ve always been a conscientious picker-upper of Jambo’s poo, even though every time I do this I also have a pang of conflict at putting the poo into a plastic bag and then putting the plastic bag into landfill. These are, I suppose, the minutely tedious ethical dilemmas of modern life.

What annoyed me was the catch phrase “Help the kids keep the creek clean!” It’s annoying at several levels, not least of them being the hearty, thumbs-up exclamation mark at the end. Who are these kids who are keeping the creek clean? The only kids I meet down the creek tend to have a dozen aerosol cans in their backpacks, or they’re in the process of destroying a lawnmower left out during the Council pick-up. Is it the school kids involved in the WaterWatch program? I don’t think that they keep the creek clean; their task – a valuable one – is to take measurements and record species numbers.

I get the feeling that these “kids” are part of the lazy manipulation that’s called upon when trying to force adults who have no self interest to do a “good thing”. How can we appeal to their better instincts? I know! Through “the kids”! No one likes to think that they’re kicking the kids in the eye. However, I’d prefer a sign that said “Pick up your dog’s crap”.

The rain stopped, and I calmed down a bit. Took some meditative pics in the gasworks.

Checked out the rat to see how much it had decayed (quite a bit in five days; Nature doesn’t mess about).

As I walked under the Chinchen Street bridge a piece of newspaper bobbed past in the water. Internationally renowned spiritual teachers are coming to Newcastle! What on earth could they possibly teach us? To pick up our dog poo?

Sparkly bottle versus Pepsi-can raft race


I walk down Styx Creek almost every day, but my first trips into the creek were taken when my kids were little and we’d just moved to Hamilton North, about 13 years ago now. Getting my two-year-old son up and down the concrete banking was always a major task and, like anything with a toddler, could take up an entire afternoon. (As could walking the 150 yards from the end of our drive to the creek itself. So many things to stop and look at!)

We spent many (many) hours racing sticks in the fast-running beck that runs down the centre of the creek bed. When his sister arrived a couple of years later she joined in too, and there developed complex and elaborate rules governing what could and couldn’t be done to aid a stick caught in an eddy or trapped against a clump of reeds.

I was pleased to see that the tradition continues, though these two craft were much sturdier and more seaworthy than anything that we ever made.

For the record, the sparkly milk bottle was about 30 feet further down the creek than the Pepsi raft: a win for wholesome milky goodness over global corporate teeth-rotting fizz.

This morning the creek by the Chatham Road bridge was barely visible, hidden by a haze of petroil fumes and dew sprayed into the atmosphere by the whizzing nylon blades of half a dozen whipper snippers. Everything’s growing so quickly at the moment that the slasher crew’s down the creek on a regular basis. There’s a freshness to these mornings that’s most un-February-like; almost autumnal.

The tangled outdoor furniture that appeared after the fresh-before-last has turned up in the pool by the TAFE, as did the mother duck and her four ducklings. I wondered how on earth they managed to survive the thunderous downpour of the weekend but, hey, they’re ducks. They’ve been doing this kind of thing for a few million years now.

This young rat wasn’t so lucky.

Another reminder of time and life passing was the flag at half mast at the Bowlo. Such a sad but common sight at bowling clubs as their membership ages.

I remember Martin Babakhan (who used to do the morning weather report on ABC 1233) standing for local council elections a few years back. One of his proposals (I think I’m remembering this correctly) was that skateboard ramps be placed within the grounds of bowling clubs: the clubs would benefit from increased patronage from young people; there’d be less chance of young people acting up, and they’d be safer places for younger skaters; and there’d be a better generational mix.

I don’t think I thought much of Martin’s other policies (neither did the rest of Newcastle; he only got 9% of the vote in the 2007 State election when he stood as Liberal candidate) but that idiosyncratic idea’s always struck me as plain, good sense.



It’s all that people have talked about this summer, or at least during the months when this summer would normally have taken place.

It brings things down the creek.

Then washes them away.

Some kids dragged this bike out of the beck, intent on salvaging it. It’ll be gone now, before they even got home from school and down there to haul it out.

This morning there was a mother duck and four ducklings in the beck. I don’t think I’m being to speculative too believe that they’re the same ones that I saw in Lambton Ker-rai Creek on Tuesday.

It made me think though about the ducky life cycle. I regularly see clutches in the canal but they’re always aged from a few weeks to a couple of months: from fluffy to fledged. I’m going to make an assumption here: that they nest in the upper reaches, towards Blackbutt, then move downstream towards the estuary via the smaller channels as they get older.

The Styx at Hamilton North isn’t a particularly good place to raise young as the concrete sides are too high and steep for ducklings to escape into the undergrowth. As I found this morning when we came across these ducklings and Jambo showed off his duckling fettling skills, until I got him back in the lead. Well pleased with himself, he was.

The circus is coming


Seeing the signs up in Richardson Park took me back ten years to when the kids were small enough to enjoy that kind of caper. One of the benefits of owning the bookshop was that people would ask to put posters up in our window and, in return, give us free tickets to their event, and so we went to the circus quite often.

Compared to the online kill-fest of Call of Duty III a circus seems pretty lame to Modern Kids. That’s tough on circuses as they have a huge “you’ve got to be there to get it” factor. I was always genuinely impressed by the athleticism, skill and daring of the performers, and even my son (now only a few weeks away from an XBox rehab centre) remembers falling of his chair laughing at Captain Frodo’s tennis racquet routine when we went to see Circus Oz. So, people: go to the circus!

I hope the park dries out for them. Smith Park was saturated on Friday and yet the guy who does the little sports thing for school kids was all set up with his goal posts and netball hoops. I didn’t go back to check whether his optimism was rewarded or whether the school just rang up and said “Forget it, buster”. Water polo might have been better.

The flush brought down a couple of interesting sculptures; a cycle wrapped in a grey tarpaulin (haven’t had a bike down the creek in months) and these two cleverly interlocked outdoor seats. If you can unravel them, they’re yours.

Everything dries out pretty quickly though. This morning (Sunday) was glorious. I particularly like the stretch where the canal bends round to join the Chaucer Street drain, from there on to the railway bridge before Chinchen Street. It’s only a couple of hundred metres and yet, on mornings like this, if you squint your eyes you could be anywhere but Newcastle. The tide was right up but the water was as still as a pond. Fish jumped or churned the water in schools. Clouds of wanderer butterflies grouped on the cotton bush weeds, laying a clutch eggs for the caterpillars to feed on the milky sap before the summer disappears. The lantana rustled with rabbit kits and blue-tongue lizards, and thornbills and wrens flitted in the lower branches while egrets and herons stalked the banking. I came across this lazy cormorant snoozing on the litter boom by the TAFE.

It must have had a big Saturday night. When it finally became aware of my presence it clattered off, more out of embarrassment than fear, I think.

Jambo ran off with something in his mouth. I thought it was a bird at first but, when he finally agreed to drop it, I realised that it was, well, part of a bird.